George Fox, it always seems to me, was no stranger to big dreams: of the Kingdom of God, of a people to be gathered, and so forth. But parts of my life – ordinary, everyday, mundane parts of my life – were absolutely unimaginable for people of his time. Some of them are still not entirely clear to us now!
For example, I think we’ve begun to get the hang of the internal combustion engine. Some Quakers drive and some don’t, but the arguments for and against are becoming familiar: discussions about expanded possibilities, travel, rural and urban areas, fossil fuels, and carbon footprints. We seem to be okay with the idea that you should always wear your seatbelt – I’ve never heard a Quaker argue that you shouldn’t have to, although of course saying that in a blog post is probably making someone somewhere construct that argument – and when Friends offer their reasons for driving or not driving, providing car parking at the Meeting House or using the space for a garden, we can predict what cases each side will make.
Not so with some other technology. The internet is a case in point. Without it, I wouldn’t have written this – not in this format, not at this time, not in this way, not curled around my laptop on the sofa – and you wouldn’t be reading it. A couple of weeks ago, a local Quaker study group looked at Advices and Queries, and had a go at writing our own. I tried to write some about the internet, and this is what I came up with:
Sharing online can be an important part of our lives as social beings. Does your internet presence reflect you as a whole person? Strive for a right balance between electronic and analogue communications, and remember that working asynchronously can provide extra time for thought and prayer. Do you consume news and other information in ways which support your freedom and positive engagement with the world?
I don’t really know whether these are useful, but I was trying to capture some aspects of my experience, as a Quaker, going online as a teenager and working through issues about integrity and spirituality in the age of the internet. How do you balance your need for privacy – and personal safety – with a desire to share fully and openly, truthfully?Which sites support integrity and which encourage misrepresentation?I like Facebook’s air of bumping into people casually; a friend of mine finds it an unending source of envy and won’t go near it. I like LinkedIn’s endorsements system, especially when I feel able to offer them to others; but I don’t want to spend much time on there because it’s so focussed on best-foot-forward professionalism. I like Twitter as a way of finding links, and for a little chat here and there, but I can’t make myself use it regularly. On the other hand, I can blog every week without strain and find myself able to be relatively vulnerable here. (Time alone will tell whether that’s really a good idea!)
Another factor which influenced this piece was an experience of present service; I’m currently clerking a new committee which does most of its work by email, and I’ve tried to write a set of guidelines for keeping our business in right ordering. Some of it’s little things – in a meeting room, we can accept sitting in silence as agreement, but online, you probably need to email to say ‘I hope so’! I haven’t at the moment – but I wonder if I might in future – been very specific about answering email prayerfully, and how one does that. It’s that which I have in mind when I talk about the power of asynchronous communication.
The last line arose from work with the Five Mindfulness Trainings (from the Zen Buddhist Order of Interbeing tradition). The last one says that “I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations.” I don’t like that! What if I want to watch trashy television? What if, as some undergraduates said to me recently, watching Jeremy Kyle is part of a fulfilled life? What if I need to watch something which is controversial, or even widely agreed to be terrible, in order to make up my own mind about it? How can I even tell which ones contain ‘toxins’? Observation of my own habits suggests that the sources which I find most toxic are not the fictional ones – I can bracket fiction off to some extent – but sources of news and especially opinion. (Apart from my own opinions, obviously they’re fine. Oh wait, something about “openness, non-discrimination, and non-attachment to views”?)
I think adverts for ‘diet tips’ and pages about ‘how to dress for your shape’ don’t do me any good at all – usually, if I read them I then have to choose between spending money or feeling like a bad or ugly person. I don’t find that the news does me much good; the big things filter through to me eventually, and day in and day out of politicians saying ridiculous things just makes me angry about things which are out of my control. Pictures of cats with funny captions on aren’t toxic if you just have one or two – but the sites are designed to keep you there, for hour after hour. And yet those things, an endless supply of things to make you angry or sad or smile, are right there at the click of a mouse (which is why they’re called clickbait). How do you get what you need and want from the internet while maintaining a Simplicity Testimony? Is reading yet another article on Lifehacker really going to help that much?